Chandler schools struggle to gain teacher diversity SanTan Sun News

Chandler schools struggle to gain teacher diversity

Chandler schools struggle to gain teacher diversity
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By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

The U.S. Department of Education in 2016 advised the ranks of elementary and high school teachers needed to become more racially diverse, but that goal has been elusive for Chandler and other East Valley school districts.

“Our students need to experience a variety of cultures in action and be exposed to the positive environment that is developed when diverse populations work effectively together,” the department said.

It argued teachers of color can serve as role models for students who look like them and strengthen academic outcomes.

Chandler Unified School District has been recently spearheading efforts to promote equity and inclusion for minorities, but its workforce has grown little in terms of diversity.

According to data CUSD shared with the SanTan Sun News, less than two percent of certified employees in the district identify as African American – a rate that has not changed in the last five years.

The number of Hispanic employees grew by about one percent, Asian employees by about half a percent, and Native American employees showed no growth. Nearly 84 percent of certified staff identify as caucasian.

The district’s student demographics are notably more diverse: 54 percent of Chandler students identify as caucasian, 27 percent is Hispanic, eight percent as Asian, and five percent is African American, according to the state Department of Education.

CUSD said it’s trying to improve its diversity disparity by encouraging classified employees to pursue teacher certifications and providing support systems to retain teachers.

Jeff Filloon, the district’s director of human resources, said they’re always cognizant of diversity when it makes hiring decisions for new teachers.

“Our strategies of making sure that we are mindful of those things, that’s always gonna be in the discussion,” Filloon said.

Chandler’s situation is not unique, as other districts in the East Valley have notable diversity gaps in their classrooms.

One percent of teachers at Gilbert Public Schools identify as African American and about six percent identify as Hispanic – rates that have changed little over the last four years.

Gilbert’s student demographics break down as 64 percent caucasian, 23 percent Hispanic, four percent Asian, and three percent African American.

GPS spokeswoman Dawn Antestenis said the district has a recruitment committee tasked with coming up with strategies to improve teacher diversity. One of their initiatives includes recruiting applicants from geographical areas with more diverse populations.

Hispanic students presently make up a 51-percent majority in the Tempe Elementary School District, yet only about 13 percent of the district’s certified educators identify as Hispanic.

Less than one percent of Scottsdale Unified School District’s certified workers identify as African American or Native American – a rate which has not changed in the last four years.

Mesa Public Schools, the state’s largest districts, saw the rate of African-American educators grow from 1.3 percent in 2012 to 1.8 percent this year.

Diversity is especially important for Louis Wade, a person of color with a 14-year-old son attending Gilbert Public Schools.

Wade grew up in California and had teachers of all different races, some of whom he considered role models. But his son, who is on the autism spectrum, has not had the same educational experience.

Aside from his son’s football coach, Wade said he hasn’t seen any other teachers of color in his son’s school. He thinks this lack of diversity can have a negative impact on students of color.

“If I don’t see anyone who looks like me, I don’t feel like I’m honored or cherished or safe in that space all the time,” Wade said.

Districts may argue its teachers are a reflection of the college students pursuing education degrees. And the number of minorities enrolling in Arizona’s teacher programs has been pretty stagnant.

Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College recently saw a slight increase in undergraduate enrollment, but the number of African American and Latino students has hovered around 32 percent for the last few school years.

More specifically, enrollment for Afrian American undergraduates decreased from four percent in 2015 to 2.5 percent three years later.

“We’re trying very hard to remedy that,” said Paul Gediman, the college’s marketing director.

He said ASU does a lot of outreach with local community colleges and works with organizations like Educators Rising to encourage more students to consider teaching.

The University of Arizona’s College of Education estimates about 48 percent of undergraduates enrolled in elementary education programs are students of color.

Bruce Johnson, the college’s dean, said his department has slowly improved diversity through multiple initiatives, including targeting more Native American students and hiring a full-time recruiter to reach out to local communities.

“We’re trying to get closer and closer to having our students match the demographics of the students they’re going to teach,” Johnson said.

Racial and ethnic disparities between students and teachers in Arizona have existed for years.

After the state’s population started to boom in the 1990s and 2000s, Arizona’s demographics started to become more diverse. But the state’s teacher demographics didn’t keep up.

The East Valley Tribune published an article in 2008 on diversity gaps at a number of school districts, noting how the economy crash might have shrunk the teacher pool. But the economy eventually got better and diversity gaps remained.

The diversity issue has only recently gotten more public attention in the last couple of years, according to Michael Hanson, senior fellow at the Brookings Institute.

He co-authored a study last year that examined teacher diversity in Arizona, Colorado, Utah and Nevada.

Hansen discovered nonwhite teachers were leaving the profession at a much higher rate in these states than the rest of the country, based on data collected in 2013.

The conversation about education used to always emphasize the quality of a teacher’s capabilities, Hansen said, but research has shown that diversity can improve a student’s education.

“It has changed the way we think about teacher quality,” Hansen said. “Looking at teacher diversity is actually an element of teacher quality.”

The stagnant salaries of Arizona teachers made the profession unappealing in the years following the Great Recession. Positions started to go vacant, prompting the state to create alternative pathways for becoming a certified teacher.

For example, someone who already has a biology degree could potentially start teaching science while simultaneously completing the state’s certification requirements.   

Hansen’s study discovered these alternative pathways attracted fewer nonwhite candidates in the western states between 2011 and 2015. But the rest of the country experienced the opposite trend of more nonwhite candidates undergoing alternative programs.

It shouldn’t be left to school districts to address diversity, Hansen added, state governments should be taking the lead to solve this issue.

Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Kathy Hoffman created a new position in her agency this year dedicated to issues of equity and diversity.

Erica Maxwell, who Hoffman appointed last month to fill the position, listed teacher diversity as one issue she’ll be working to address.

“It’s going to take some work,” she recently said in an interview, but the state needs to examine why people of color not only don’t choose careers in education but why they aren’t staying in them.

“I personally know great teachers of color who have left the classroom,” Maxwell said.

Experts say access to higher education will remain an important element to improving the nation’s teacher diversity.

The state introduced a Teachers Academy a couple years ago offering free college tuition to prospective teachers willing to work in Arizona classrooms.

Louis Wade and his family think increased education funding can help close the diversity gap in the East Valley by attracting more applicants to the region.

Lous is hopeful the situation will get better, because he doesn’t want to have to uproot his son out of Gilbert.

“We’ve actually considered moving to a more diverse area,” Wade added.

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